The Global Wanderings of New-Age Musician Ariel Kalma

Foto: © Ariel Kalma
From jazz to chanson, from scouting trips to spirituality, and finally finding the universe in Nepal Ariel Kalma’s life is a wild ride! Born in post-war Paris, this pioneer of new-age music takes us on a journey across the globe and straight into the realm of magic.

At 13, Ariel Kalma sees the universe. A boy punches him in the solar plexus, the network of nerves between the sternum and navel. Kalma collapses, stunned, for two or three minutes. After a few minutes, the young Frenchman emerges beaming »It was a wonderful, an incredible experience!«

On this day at the scout camp, a few kilometres outside of Paris in the late 1950s, his life changes. The boy, who grew up shortly after the end of World War II in the artists’ quarter of Montparnasse next to market criers and street musicians, looks into another world. One that he cannot name until years later, when he attends a concert by the Indian Dagar Brothers. »They sang and sang and I cried and cried. Then I knew what state I’d discovered back then: spirituality!«

In his youth, Kalma began to listen to free jazz. Soon he takes up the saxophone himself. He is fascinated by the radicality of the sound. He hung out in the dives of the capital, sliding across the stages on his knees in rock bands. And in 1970, he lands by chance with Salvatore Adamo. The chanson singer is a star in France and recruits the young Kalma for a world tour. »I knew that I actually wanted to do something else, but in his band I could see all these places. And with it, the people.«

Honey and Hashish

Kalma talks about his first trip to India and a second one, where he travels the country with little more than his flute. He learns yoga and the basics of classical Indian music. A snake charmer teaches him circular breathing through the mouth. »I had to drink a glass of brandy to trick my mind. Then he handed me a glass of water and a straw. I was supposed to keep blowing into it and make the water bubble without ever stopping. So that’s what I did.«

When Ariel Kalma finally arrives in Kashmir, northern India, it is winter. »What I didn’t know is that the mountain pass is closed at that time of year. I had arrived but I was stuck. There was a lot of hashish, however. The people I lived with on a houseboat had a giant hookah—a water pipe where you sit in a circle and pass the pipe around. We mixed the hashish with tobacco, which was dipped in honey. I’d already had such an experience in the south of France, but in Kashmir I experienced the whole thing.«

Ariel Kalma leaves Kashmir a vegetarian and buys books by Hermann Hesse. He knows that he has opened a door in Nepal. That’s why he wants to go back to his homeland, back to Paris, but, he doesn’t have the cash. A disabled American who was travelling in India finally helped him get a job. »He wanted to see the temples, I drove him, until I had enough money for the return trip.«

The quick trip home doesn’t happen. It’s 1974, the time of the first oil crisis. Kalma travels on foot, by car, along the Hippie Trail. »First I came to Pakistan, which I didn’t like because the people were rude and aggressive. Then I went to Afghanistan, where you could feel the political tension. In Iran the uprising against the Shah was nearing an end. I eventually ended up in Turkey. There I met a saz player who I accompanied into the mountains to entertain the soldiers.«

The expensive Japanese flute Kalma took with him at the start of his journey has long since been packed away. All the musicians he meets along the way play cheap instruments. From them he learns that it doesn’t take much to get in the right mood. »Honking horns, bicycle chains, even a three-dollar flute has a mood, because in Indian music everything is in tune,« says Kalma.

One-way ticket to New York

In the mid-1970s, few in Paris had heard of this absolute mood. Kalma was working at the GRM, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustic/Musical Music, where he was creating longer and longer loops on tape machines. But hardly anyone shares his fascination for endless cascading sounds and their trippy overtones.

Despite this, Kalma manages to sell 1000 copies of his début album, »Le Temps de Moisson« –repetitive guru music from the swan neck of enlightenment. On the other side of the Atlantic, like-minded souls were pursuing similar musical visions: Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine were pioneering minimal music in the US. When Kalma caught wind of this, he immediately booked a one-way ticket to New York.

»They sang and sang and I cried and cried. Then I knew what state I’d discovered back then: spirituality!«

Ariel Kalma

He spent a few weeks living in the catacombs of a Manhattan church, keeping a white dove as a pet and playing in parks during the day with casual acquaintances like Don Cherry. »One day I met a woman, she was a dancer, and she said: ›Oh, you’re Ariel, I dance to your music.‹ We became a couple and she came to Paris with me. I introduced her to my meditation group and she was very interested. So I said to her, let’s connect in spirit. I prepared all my instruments and began to play. I almost forgot to press the record button. Luckily I did, otherwise ›Musique Pour Le Rêve Et L’Amour‹ would never have come about.«

Another album, »Osmose«, marked a new direction for Ariel Kalma’s music. He was one of the first to use bird recordings. »A colleague at the GRM sent me this sculptor, Richard Tinti. He said he had been to Borneo and had 15 hours of recordings from the rainforest. So I invited him to my flat and he played the tapes for me. When I heard his recordings I couldn’t believe it. The birds were in tune with my music! All I had to do was mix it. That was it!«

Blood Cures and Hearing Aids

Years pass. Albums are made. Ariel Kalma never stops making music. In the 80s he also becomes interested in Tantra, falls in love with a woman in Hamburg and moves with her to Maui. »41 stormy, intense and loving years have passed since then,« says Ama, his wife, who joins Ariel. For more than 20 years they have lived with their family on the east coast of Australia. From there, Ama makes sure »the world can hear Ariel’s music—and that he doesn’t accept every request he gets.«

After Kalma’s early recordings were reissued a few years ago, the requests became more frequent. His choice of collaborators proves that Ariel Kalma keeps a close eye on what’s happening in contemporary electronic music: in recent years he has worked with young musicians such as Sarah Davachi, Gilbert Cohen and Jonathan Fitoussi. He recently recorded a session for the BBC with Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Horner.

»These collaborations are like a blood cure,« says Kalma, who—following his ideological role model Miles Davis—would like to play with younger people much more often. »Unfortunately, that’s not really possible anymore because I can hardly hear. I use a hearing aid, but when I play the saxophone it hurts my ears. I can only play the didgeridoo, which I call the harmonic tube. Well, you can find magic everywhere!«

That’s why new and old recordings will continue to be released. After all, Kalma now has all the tapes he has recorded since his time in Paris. »A few years ago, a friend sent me several boxes of my old recordings. They contain more than 150 hours of music. Sometimes I listen to them. Sometimes I release them, and believe me, I can carry on doing this until the day I die.«